When an employee complains about unfair or discriminatory treatment, you should promptly and thoroughly investigate the complaint. A quality investigation can solve a problem and avert potential litigation. If a lawsuit results, the investigation can be an important part of the organization’s response and defense.
There’s a flipside: A poorly conducted or skewed workplace investigation can backfire and further fuel claims of unfairness or discrimination. That’s what happened when a sheriff’s office recently investigated one of its officers.
Charmaine McGuffey worked in the Hamilton County, Ohio, Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) for 34 years. When Sheriff Jim Neil promoted McGuffey to major, she was the first woman to hold the rank in the HCSO. She received accolades from the private and public sector for her work in corrections. The sheriff’s performance evaluation of her was glowing—he described her as his “favorite major.”
Despite her own successes, McGuffey believed female officers weren’t treated with respect, nor were they promoted properly. When she reported to Sheriff Neil and Chief Deputy Schoonover that two subordinates acted disrespectfully toward her, she was told, “These guys just don’t like working for a woman,” and “You’ve got to get along with these guys.”
A male sergeant told McGuffey he should have her job—not McGuffey. The same sergeant accused her of interfering with Internal Affairs’ use-of-force investigations. Eventually, two junior officers told McGuffey “the men who work for you did not like your style of supervision.”
Complaint and Investigation
Heather Dobbins began working as McGuffey’s administrative assistant in 2013. In late 2016, Dobbins became unhappy working with the major over what she considered was mistreatment and sought a transfer. She got the transfer in December, and in January 2017, she filed a formal complaint against McGuffey. Among other allegations, Dobbins said, “McGuffey bullied me and made me do things that were not in my job description.”
The HCSO investigated Dobbins’ complaint and concluded McGuffey had created a hostile work environment and had been dishonest. After the investigation was completed, Chief Deputy Schoonover recommended to Sheriff Neil that McGuffey be fired. Based on the investigation’s report, the sheriff offered her a demotion to a civilian position, or she would face termination. When she refused the demotion, she was fired.
Investigation and the Lawsuit
McGuffey filed a lawsuit against the HCSO contending that her firing was discriminatory and was based on her gender and/or her sexual orientation. The HCSO denied acting discriminatorily, explaining its decision was based on the investigation and its determination she was responsible for a hostile work environment for those under her supervision.
Based on the “unusual nature” of the HCSO’s investigation of McGuffey, a federal court found a jury would decide whether her firing was discriminatory. The court noted there had been seven previous “hostile work environment” complaints lodged against heterosexuals and men in the HCSO, and the manner in which McGuffey’s investigation was handled by Internal Affairs was “dramatically different.” For example:
- A few people were interviewed in the other seven investigations. More than 30 were interviewed as part of the probe into McGuffey’s conduct.
- Internal Affairs either entirely failed to interview or heavily discounted all the witnesses she identified.
- The other investigations focused only on the specific event alleged in the complaint, while hers covered her 4-year term as major.
- The seven other investigation reports were five or fewer pages long, while her report was 108 pages long.
Unsurprisingly, of the eight “hostile work environment” claims, McGuffey’s investigation was the only instance when an employee’s complaint was sustained. McGuffey v. Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, Case No. 1:18-CV-322 (S.D. Ohio, W. Div. 7/29/20).
Keep This in Mind
When you receive reports of misconduct, discrimination, unfairness, and the like, it’s always best to take the claims seriously. Conducting a prompt workplace investigation is invaluable. But throughout your investigation, make sure the manner in which the investigation is conducted is not only thorough but also will be viewed as even-handed by someone else—such as a judge or a jury.